Monday, January 30, 2012

One Season Wonders: Frank Viola

The 1989 Mets were a team in transition.  After cruising to their second division title in three years in 1988, the Mets fell flat in '89.  Co-captains Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter spent much of the year on the disabled list, combining to play in only 125 games.  Dwight Gooden did not make a start after the All-Star Break, missing over two months of the season with a shoulder injury before returning in September to make two relief appearances.

Assistant GM Joe McIlvane was also in the process of dismantling the team that enjoyed great success from 1984 to 1988.  Veterans Mookie Wilson and Lee Mazzilli became teammates in Toronto.  Roger McDowell and Lenny Dykstra were shipped off to Philadelphia.  Terry Leach became a Kansas City Royal.  Despite all the changes in personnel, the Mets remained competitive in the NL East.  At the All-Star Break, the Mets were only 2½ games out of first place, albeit with a less than spectacular 45-39 record.

But the plethora of injuries, especially the one to Gooden, were beginning to catch up to them in late July.  The Mets finished the month on a seven-game losing streak, which included a three-game sweep at the hands of the division-leading Chicago Cubs.  The team was also losing their patience with Rick Aguilera.

Aguilera, who was the winning pitcher in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, had begun the year brilliantly after two poor middle relief appearances to start the season.  From April 18 to June 19, Aggie had one of the most dominant stretches in Mets' history, allowing one earned run in 39 innings (0.23 ERA).  Opposing batters hit .169 against him and he had a phenomenal strikeout to walk ratio, fanning 47 batters while walking only eight.  It was during this stretch that the Mets started using him more in the final innings and he rewarded them by going 6-for-6 in save opportunities to go with three wins.

But then Aguilera hit a wall, one in which he never recovered from as a Met.  In 14 appearances from June 20 to July 30, Aggie was brutal to watch.  He blew four out of five save opportunities, lost five games and had a 4.78 ERA, while allowing opposing batters to hit just under .300 against him.  By then, Randy Myers was firmly entrenched as the team's closer (a position he also held in 1988) and Aguilera was deemed expendable.  The Mets were teetering close to the .500 mark and had fallen five full games behind the first place Cubs.  Joe McIlvane felt a change was needed and did not hesitate when the opportunity presented itself.  He needed more than just Rick Aguilera to complete the deal, but when it was completed, the Mets had themselves a former World Series champion and Cy Young Award winner in Frank Viola.

Frank Viola wore shades because he thought his future would be bright with the Mets.

The late July swoon and the need to find a suitable replacement for the injured Dwight Gooden led the Mets to make a major move at the trade deadline.  On July 31, 1989, the Mets sent Rick Aguilera, minor league prospects Kevin Tapani, David West, Tim Drummond and a player to be named later (Jack Savage) to Minnesota for left-handed starter and Long Island native Frank Viola.

Frank John Viola had built quite a résumé in the Twin Cities, winning 112 games in 7½ seasons, including a 24-win season in 1988 that earned him the American League Cy Young Award.  That came on the heels of the Twins' first World Series championship, a series in which Viola won two games against the St. Louis Cardinals, including the seventh and deciding game.  The Mets had acquired themselves one of the best pitchers in baseball and expected Viola to turn the team around in 1989 and beyond.

Unfortunately, the Mets did not come back to win the division in 1989, finishing in second place with an 87-75 record.  It was the first season since 1983 in which the Mets failed to win 90 games.  Viola was only mediocre in his 12 starts for the Mets, going 5-5 with a 3.38 ERA.  The man known as Sweet Music failed to deliver a division-winning concerto for the Mets in 1989.  However, with the return of a healthy Dwight Gooden in 1990, Viola took the National League by storm as part of a formidable one-two punch.  His renaissance started early and continued throughout the season.  Before he was done, Viola found himself doing things no left-handed pitcher had ever done before in a Mets uniform.

When the Mets traded for Frank Viola in 1989, they expected to see a Cy Young-caliber performance in almost every start.  They got much more than that over Viola's first seven outings in 1990.  Through mid-May, Viola was off to one of the best starts in franchise history.  Sweet Music started seven games and was the winning pitcher in all seven, allowing five runs in 51
⅔ innings, striking out 52 batters while walking only six.  Five of the seven games resulted in shutouts.

Although Viola was 7-0 to start the season, the same could not be said for the rest of the staff.  After winning his seventh game on May 12, the Mets were just barely over .500 with a 16-14 record.  The Mets were depending too much on Frank Viola to carry the staff while the other players got their act together.  So when Viola had his first mini-slump of the season, although it was only two starts, the team completely fell apart, leading to the dismissal of their long-time manager.

No need to look so mean, Frank.  It wasn't your fault that Davey Johnson got fired in 1990.

Following his scorching start, Viola cooled down.  In his final two appearances in May, Viola faced the San Diego Padres both times.  The Friars did as they pleased with the Met lefty, scoring 11 runs (10 earned) in 11 innings off Viola, handing him the loss on each occasion.  With Viola not winning, the team followed suit, losing nine of 13 games to go below .500.  During this cold streak, manager Davey Johnson was fired, replaced by Buddy Harrelson.  As with most managerial changes, the team responded quickly with Frank Viola leading the way.

From June 1 to the All-Star Break, Viola returned to his winning ways, going 6-1 over his next eight starts (one no-decision).  In his one loss, Viola gave up seven runs in 5
⅓ innings to the Pittsburgh Pirates.  But in his six wins, Viola was back to making the sweet music he was creating in the early part of the season.  Viola allowed five runs in 48⅔ innings in those six victories for a 0.92 ERA.  In the team's final game before the All-Star Break, Viola pitched 7⅔ innings of one-run ball, improving his record to 13-3.

After losing their first game under Buddy Harrelson, the Mets had suddenly become the hottest team in the National League, going 27-9 in their final 36 games before the All-Star Break to pull to within half a game of the first place Pirates.  With his 13-3 record at the break, Viola was named to the National League All-Star team for the first time, where he pitched one scoreless inning in relief.  

Unfortunately, the break couldn't have come at a worse time for the Mets, as the time off killed any momentum they had gained since the beginning of June.  In their first 33 games after the Midsummer Classic, the Mets were barely a winning team, going 17-16.  However, the Pirates weren't exactly taking advantage of the Mets' mediocrity, going 15-16 over the same time period.  The Pirates' slump catapulted the Mets into first place, but by late August, the Mets were once again behind Pittsburgh in the NL East, and this time they were four games back.  Needing one more push to retake the lead in the division, the Mets called upon Frank Viola to deliver.  The southpaw did all he could to carry the team on his back.

After seeing his record fall to 15-8 in mid-August, Viola turned it up a notch for the stretch run.  In a six-start span from August 22 to September 15, Viola went 4-1 with a 1.69 ERA.  He pitched at least eight innings in all but one of those six starts (Viola pitched seven innings in his one loss, a 2-1 defeat to the Los Angeles Dodgers) and held opponents to a .283 on-base percentage.  During this stretch, the Mets retook the lead in the National League East, only to fall behind by 3½ games in early September.  When Viola defeated the Phillies on September 15 for his 19th win of the season, the Mets were back to within half a game of first place.  That would be the closest the Mets would come to wresting the division lead away from the Pirates, as New York went 8-9 over their final 17 games while the Pirates took 11 of their final 16 contests to win the division by four games over the Mets.

Viola would win his 20th game of the season in the season finale against the division champions, but by then, it was too late.  The Pirates had won the first of three consecutive NL East titles and the Mets would go on to post six consecutive losing seasons after 1990.

Frankie V made Sweet Music throughout the entire 1990 season for the Mets.

Despite the disappointing end to the 1990 campaign, the Mets thought they would be able to count on Frank Viola for years to come.  Viola finished the year with a 20-12 record and a 2.67 ERA, becoming only the fifth pitcher (and second lefty) to win 20 games in a season for the Mets.  For his efforts, Viola finished third in the NL Cy Young Award vote, behind Doug Drabek and Ramon Martinez.  It would be the last time Viola would taste that type of success in the major leagues.

Although Frank Viola began the 1991 season strongly, going 11-5 with a 2.78 ERA over his first 19 starts and earning his second All-Star Game selection as a Met, he was an absolute disaster over the second half of the season.  From July 17 until the end of the season, Viola's music turned sour.  In 16 starts, Viola went 2-10 with a 5.75 ERA, failing to pitch more than six innings in 11 of those starts.  He wasn't fooling anyone at the plate, allowing 121 hits while striking out only 57 batters in 92⅓ innings.

For the season, Viola finished 13-15 with a 3.97 ERA.  The most telling stat of Viola's 1991 season was his hits allowed.  In 231⅓ innings, Viola surrendered 259 hits.  It was the most hits allowed by a Met since Roger Craig gave up 261 safeties in 233⅓ innings during the team's inaugural 1962 campaign.  To this day, Viola's figure remains the second-highest total in club history.  In addition, since 1991, the only National League pitcher to give up more than 259 hits in a season has been Livan Hernandez, who accomplished the feat in 1998, 2001 and 2005.  That's how bad Viola's 1991 season was, especially after the All-Star Break.

The Mets finished the 1991 season with a 75-86 record, their first losing record since 1983.  That offseason, Frank Viola became a free agent.  Given his poor second half in 1991, the Mets decided to go in another direction, allowing Viola to sign a three-year, $13.9 million deal with the Boston Red Sox. 

Viola had a so-so season in his first year in Boston (13-12, 3.44 ERA), followed by a decent second year (11-8, 3.14 ERA).  However, despite still being relatively young (age 33), Viola made only 15 more appearances in the major leagues following his second season in Boston, winning two of them.  A torn ligament in his left elbow sent Viola to the disabled list for the first time in 1994 and he underwent Tommy John surgery to fix it.  He ended up making six starts for Boston in 1994, three starts for Cincinnati in 1995 and six starts for Toronto in 1996, combining to go 2-5 with a 6.19 ERA before retiring at the age of 36.  He finished his career with a 176-150 record and a 3.73 ERA, going 38-32 in 2½ seasons with the Mets.

It's a shame Frank Viola didn't get to go out on top of his game.  He certainly was on top in 1990.

Frank Viola came to the Mets in 1989, hoping to get the team back to the heights it had reached in 1986 and 1988.  In his first full season in New York, Viola became the second left-handed pitcher in club annals to win 20 games.  However, he followed that up by giving up the second-most hits in franchise history in 1991.  By 1992, he was no longer a Met and by 1996, he was out of baseball.  Meanwhile, the players he was traded for made quite a name for themselves in the major leagues.

Rick Aguilera became a top closer in the American League, setting the Twins' career franchise record for saves (eventually surpassed by Joe Nathan in 2011).  Kevin Tapani won 143 games in the major leagues, of which 75 came in Minnesota.  In 1991, while Viola was giving up hit after hit for the Mets, Aguilera was tying the Twins' single-season record with 42 saves and Tapani was en route to a 16-9 record with a 2.99 ERA, helping the Twins win their second World Series championship.

The Mets wanted sweet music from Frank Viola when they acquired him in 1989.  All they got was one season of greatness.  However, his one spectacular season has become the last 20-win season recorded by a Mets' pitcher, as no one has won more than 17 games since 1990 (Al Leiter won 17 games for the Mets in 1998).  The fact that no Met has approached 20 wins since Viola accomplished the feat in 1990 is as much a wonder as Viola's one season was.

Note: One Season Wonders is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets who had one and only one memorable season in New York.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 2, 2012: Bernard Gilkey
January 9, 2012: Terry Leach 
January 16, 2012: George Stone
January 23, 2012: Roger Cedeño

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